Understanding Bible Stories
As I am making my way through the Bible, per my 2020 resolution to read it daily, at times I am filled with more questions than answers. There are many lessons to be learned from the history, proverbs, and recounted stories told in the Bible. Some of them are pretty straightforward: Don't steal, don't cheat people, don't commit adultery, don't be cruel or unfair to others.
Some lessons are not so straightforward. In fact, sometimes there are multiple lessons to learn. And sometimes the text needs to be read multiple times to gain understanding. The particular text that I am working my way through now is the book of Job. The story of a righteous man of integrity who is a servant of God, yet suffers terrible loss in his life and is afflicted even in his health.
A quick answer for Job's misery can not be found with a single reading. Dare I say, not even after a couple of readings. The narrative of Job invokes burning questions like "why do good people suffer?" and "why do bad people get away with evil?". These are not questions that can be answered with simple rationality.
As such, readers seeking answers to these types of inquiries will be required to read, reflect on, re-read, possibly take notes, ask critical questions, and read again not only of what is said in the text but what is NOT said. And then one should read it again and again.
One conclusion that I came to is that it's not the finding of a singular answer that is always the end goal. Sometimes the prize is uncovering further questions buried within the initial questions presented.
For example, the basic question in Job may be "why are these bad things happening to him?" Initially, it may appear that Job is completely blameless, after all, God says so in the first chapter. But the more I read Job, the more I wonder if the possibility of pride or self-righteousness might be characteristics of the afflicted man? Maybe not, but it doesn't help to assume anything based on a first read-through.
Then there are Job's friends. They have good intentions, but their delivery is awful. One might assume that they are know-it-alls and pretty self-righteous to boot. But after taking a deeper look into what they were saying about Job, and about God it is apparent that they each have different theological outlooks altogether.
And then there is young Elihu. Where did he come from? Is there a reason his speech was left for last? What 'spirit' was he speaking of? Was the Holy Spirit speaking through him? It's interesting to note that Elihu is the last speak to Job right before God does.
If you are not yet familiar with the story of Job, check out this narrated playlist from my YouTube channel.
The pseudo-transcript that the video was based on can be found HERE.
The takeaway from this post is to NOT expect immediate enlightenment after reading one of the many stories from the Bible. You can find illumination and understanding after repeated reading, but true wisdom can only be found by understanding what you read.
Because there is quite a bit of melodrama in the storytelling (Job is the first book in the Poetry Section of the Old Testament after all), I found myself having to read the text both in a detached way to get the gist of the meaning and then again with a little more emotional investment to try to understand why each person was saying what they said.
Job's friends all came from different places. Was this an influence on the advice they gave him? Where they even of the same faith as him? If so, were they of a different sect? Why were there points of view on God and man so different?I'm still working on some of these details, but the more that I read the less the story seems about circumstances of life and the more it seems about the character of a man.
Another thing I found interesting was the pattern of numbers. 7 sons, 3 daughters, 7 days they sat in silence, 3 friends that came to visit. There may be something of importance there or nothing at all. Numbers play a significant role in some parts of the Bible but it's important not to get obsessed with looking for patterns and meaning. Isaac Newton became obsessed with finding a biblical code for alchemy. I'd hate to think that I would lose obvious wisdom by searching for the minutia of secret knowledge.
Click the image for a short video presentation reviewing the book of Job
So what is the "moral to the story" of Job? I think there is more than one lesson, as there is with many stories within the Bible. I think there is a lesson between Job and God, Job and his friends, Job's friends and God, Job and his wife, Job and his former life and current outlook on life as he suffers, etc. There is a LOT going on in Job to come away with a single lesson.
I think in that way, the account of Job's suffering is a good parallel for life. Sometimes the problems in life have a singular cause and a singular solution. More often than not, there are multiple variables that influenced any given situation, a variety of possible solutions, and one or more lessons that God wants us to take away from it. The questions that we ask beyond "why is this happening" are the ones that get us to the answer(s). That is the lesson I learned from reading the book of Job.
How do you understand stories from the Bible? This is how I read for understanding:
1) read the story for basic comprehension
2) re-read it to see if you missed any details
3) read the text with empathy to "see how it feels" from your perspective
4) "read between the lines". Many books of the Bible are written in a poetic way and sometimes the meaning behind what is written can be best understood by the feeling behind the analogy or parable
5) look at commentaries and notes from scholars and those well versed in biblical history. Compare notes (just like Job's friends had different outlooks, historians and scholars do too).
6) Take a break from the text and come back to re-read it with fresh eyes after a day or two. After letting the information sink in, coming back to review can help you comprehend the overall story and discover new concepts.
Here are some of the helpful websites I researched after my initial reading of Job:
The takeaway is that true understanding of any of the accounts, histories, proverbs, and lessons from the Bible may require multiple readings of the text, outside research from reputable sources, and a willingness to ask the right kinds of questions.
Although this website challenges visitors to read the Bible in 1 year, the Bible is meant to be read and reread throughout one's lifetime. Each time a passage or book is read, its quite possible that new meaning can be found.